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Cashing in on the heart of the game

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When the new TV rights for the English game were announced for a whopping £5.36bn, aside from proving football’s everlasting popularity here in the UK it also showed inexplicably how the game of the people has changed into a money-driven business.

Clubs in the English top flight are now to receive more than £100m per year, even the teams that end up facing the drop.  This is a massive investment in football and will see the ridiculous transfer fees and wages continue to be meted out in the way that they have down there for yea

Here in Scotland our football league gets nowhere near those heady sums, earning less in a year (£16m) than two English Premier League games will cost in the near future.  Of course that’s down to some poor marketing and business decisions by those at the top of the game in this county, but as disappointing as it is to say – Scottish football is lagging behind the English game in quality and that is being reflected in the TV deals.

But even though Scottish football isn’t getting the payday that clubs south of Hadrian’s wall are, it’s still as lucrative as it has ever been and clubs are beginning to turn their dangerous deficits into working businesses.  And while that’s more than reason to be cheerful as the Scottish football “Armageddon” has failed to materialise, the profits and plenty that clubs are now enjoying aren’t being turned over to the people that are the heart and soul of the game – the fans.

The BBC Price of Football survey has shown that the average cost of a day out at a football match in Scotland’s top flight has increased 7% since the survey began in 2011, roughly 3% above the natural inflation you would expect.  This may only be £2 per game, but when tallied up for fans and families across an entire season the costs soon begin to escalate.  Add in the cost of a shirt, around £40 a pop across the whole of Scottish football, and it becomes apparent that following your club is becoming an increasingly expensive endeavour.  At least it’s better than affairs in England, where ticket prices have gone up 13% despite TV revenues going up by 70%.

While the cost of going to a match has soared, attendances have dropped across Scottish football.  The average attendance in the Premier League so far this year is actually already down around 10% on last year and this is continuing a trend, although not quite as pronounced as that, lasting for over a decade now.  Fans are slowly turning away from going to the football, which is a sad state of affairs for our national game.

Scotland tickets have rocketed in price even compared to the average cost of a day at a game.  For the latest Euro qualifying campaign, prices have been set markedly above what they were for our last round of qualifiers.  A season ticket for our five home qualifiers this time cost £250 compared to just £150 for our last set of fixtures (although that included one less game).  Individual tickets for qualifiers cost as much as £45 while tickets for the England friendly were set at a minimum of £50 for adults.  All told, despite the economic hardships most fans are enduring, the SFA has put prices up by an average of 34% this campaign – which is frankly unacceptable.

The official SFA line regarding the price increases is:

“Ticket prices have now increased for a number of reasons, including the calibre of opposition (World Champions Germany, and our old rivals England), current market trends and inflation, current cost of printing, fulfilment and match operations.”

Tartan Army groups have widely condemned the price increases as a money-grabbing tactic from the SFA, taking advantage of the national team’s new found success to line their pockets.  Scotland internationals are routinely among the highest attended in all of Europe, and the SFA should not need to hold their fans to ransom to pick up decent revenues from their games.

The attendance at our recent qualifiers against Georgia and Gibraltar were proof enough that Scotland fans will grudgingly not attend games if they are priced too high. 

Money and football are inextricably linked now, and will be for the foreseeable future.  It’s creating a big squeeze on fans, who despite having less disposable income are being asked to stump up more to get their football fix.  While matchday costs have gone up 7% since 2011 and the cost to see a Scotland match going up 34% on average, the average salary for people across Scotland has only grown by 3% over the same time period.  This means that football fans need to be more devoted than ever if they want to turn up to watch their team, and of course for some people that is a bit more than they can afford.

The effect on clubs may be a trickling down from the ludicrous TV deals being struck in England.  More money pours down to the lower leagues there and attracts more talent that would otherwise play in Scotland.  Scottish Premiership clubs have had to increase the wages they pay their players in an effort to keep them, and they’ve helped fund this by raising matchday costs for fans.  The lower leagues are dragged along with the Premiership, as they too try to keep players satisfied, but also as they can justify the higher costs by comparing themselves to more expensive days out in the top divisions.

An added factor in the modern game is that clubs now see their TV incomes as their primary source of income, so the traditional emphasis on getting punters through the turnstiles has been abandoned in favour of buying better players in the hope of getting on telly more.  Undoubtedly fans still want to get out and see their team play, even if there is more football available to watch on TV than there ever has been before, but clubs aren’t catching on to the fact that higher costs will eventually mean that some will desert their Saturday rituals in favour of watching from home.

Something needs to be done to make clubs re-align their priorities, or at least incentivise football clubs to offer lower ticket prices.  Doing so is a minefield, as any policy at either a football association or government level would be mired in debate as different clubs would be affected differently, but I do think that there needs to be a concerted effort from those in charge of the game to make sure it remains within the reach of the ordinary fans.  Football clubs may survive financially without the gate receipts of old, but it loses its spirit and its worth if it loses the support of the fans.

A suggestion I’d make is for the SPFL to introduce a top-up fund for gate receipts.  Clubs would be invited to lower their prices and if their revenues drop, as they don’t bring in more fans to make up for the lower income per ticket, then the SPFL would match the revenue up to the amount they took in the season before.  Finding the money for such a policy might be tricky, and would likely require some redistribution between clubs that wouldn’t necessarily be welcomed, but I believe it’s a solution that could certainly prove effective in the lower leagues at convincing clubs that the benefits of cutting costs for their fans wouldn’t hurt them financially.

Clubs are now seeing the benefits of reducing costs for fans and the numerous experiments with it up and down the country have almost always been resounding successes. Albion Rovers kicked the “Pay what you want” revolution off last January, with the crowd increasing 125% for their first attempt and gate receipts increasing 160%.  Hamilton Accies and Inverness Caley Thistle have both replicated the Rovers’ ideas in the Premiership and both found similar results.  Albion Rovers went a step further this season by introducing the same principle for their season tickets, which meant that they trebled their sales in just five days. Scottish football needs to help its’ fans, and to the credit of these clubs and the several others that are focussing more on their supporters the tide is slowly turning in their favour – but there is still a long way to go.

The cost of football in this country is growing considerably, and if the game of the people wants to stay that way then clubs and the SFA are going to have to take some steps that might hurt them financially in the short-term, but will help secure the status of football in Scotland for decades to come.  Cashing in on the heart of the game will only prove to stop it beating.

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About Author

Steven Kellow is a Ross County fan currently exiled as a student in Aberdeen. Aside from following the Staggies and Scottish football in general, he takes an interest in the more obscure and abstract features of the beautiful game: analysing football history, competitions and the side of football off the pitch. Enjoys writing about a range of topics apart from football too. He can actually understand BBC Alba commentary also.

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